Friday, January 30, 2009

"Beautiful Boy"

Beautiful Boy by David Scheff

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

The only thing worse than watching your child die of disease or from an accident, is watching him self-destruct, slowly, all the while stringing you along with shreds of hope and outright lies. David Scheff is a regular contributor to the New York Times whose son Nicolas became addicted to methamphetamine as a teenager. Nic is still alive, but every day he makes a decision about whether to feed or starve his addiction, and he will do so for the rest of his life. This is a sad book, but at the same time, it offers hope and comfort to those of us who have watched a loved one struggle with addiction.

If a child is suffering, often we parents don’t know it. Children, particularly adolescents, don’t tend to open up to their parents about things that trouble them. The world we inhabit is fraught with peril: wars raging in the middle east with no end in sight, political divisions, millions going hungry, polar ice caps melting, gas prices soaring, terrorists attacking, etc. A sensitive and aware child can easily be overwhelmed with feelings of doom and hopelessness. Recreational drugs lure troubled people with the offer of escape from the frightening uncertainty of a confusing world. Insecure children also find drugs a way of hiding from emotional pain or perceived physical inadequacies. Many adults, too, enjoy their drug of choice: whatever serves to distract them from their “lives of quiet desperation”. While entirely too many people use unhealthy coping strategies, there are still adults among us who believe that life is something to embrace rather than run from. David Scheff is one such individual.

Beautiful Boy is a father’s story about the devastation that addiction wreaks on families. Nic, was a gifted, talented, and delightful child. He was creative and inquisitive and everything we hope our children will be until he wasn’t. Methamphetamine robbed him of his gifts and enslaved him. Nic’s drug addiction was much stronger than his love for his family or for himself, and to this day refuses to let Nic go. The damage done both inside and out is evident in recent photographs: Nic looks despondent and ghostly, nothing like the sweet and beautiful boy of his childhood.

What I liked most about this book was Mr. Scheff’s humility: as an adult and as a parent he made mistakes, which he acknowledges without beating himself up. Instead he decided to do better so that Nic might have a chance to beat his addiction. Additionally, Beautiful Boy contains helpful information about the whole cycle of addiction and why certain drugs are more dangerous than others. This book is not political in that Mr. Scheff does not have an agenda other than to share his own sad experience.

Our nation has been waging a “war on drugs” for the past many decades. While well-intentioned, this effort has had the effect of incarcerating a disproportionate number of young black men and enriching drug producers at home and abroad. Ask any teenager at any local high school how easy it is to get drugs and he or she will invariably answer, “extremely”. This was true when I was a student in the 1970s, but what is different is that the drugs available now are much more potent and addictive than even ten years ago. Nic Scheff, like so many, got his start with marijuana in middle school. He was busted, swore it was a mistake and he would never do it again. His parents believed him and eventually gave him back his freedom. The problem was, Nic was much more troubled than either he or his parents understood and his drug use was not a mistake: it was a form of self-medication.

By the time Nic was a senior in high school, he was using crystal meth, one of the most addictive drugs available. From that point on, his life became a frantic roller coaster ride: he went from stealing from family and friends, to support his habit, to extended periods of sobriety; from disappearing to crawling back home like the prodigal son. Meanwhile, Nic’s young siblings felt constantly betrayed by their beloved older brother who would charm them one day and abandon them the next.

Nic became two people: Sober Nic and Addicted Nic. Addicted Nic is the stronger one, but Sober Nic refuses give up. Sober Nic surfaces from time to time, but it takes an increasing amount of willpower to withstand the pull of Addicted Nic who is like a slave catcher from the old south. Sober Nic loves his family and craves time with them. Addicted Nic will refuse food but never his drug. Sober Nic will refuse his drug for a time. And then something happens, and Addicted Nic exploits the weakness in Sober Nic and the cycle begins again.

Addiction treatment centers are found in almost every urban area in the United States. A stay in one can cost several hundred dollars per day and the recommended stay is often six months or more. There are occasional success stories, but mostly there are relapses. Mr. Scheff found himself trying to make sense of the revolving door that addiction treatment represents and determined that as long as he held a shred of hope that Nic could recover, he would continue to find a way to fund Nic’s treatment.

Beautiful Boy is not a self-help book, rather it is a personal history. Mr. Scheff does not pretend to have answers, and can only guess at what went wrong with Nic. His objective in writing this book was to share his pain with other families in similar circumstances and to let them know that they are not alone. Beautiful Boy is also a cautionary tale about the availability of illegal drugs and the ease with which children can obtain them.

If drugs are so readily available, how can we parents keep our children from trying them? The simple answer is we can’t; it is up to our children to decide for themselves. The complicated answer is that we parents need to do a better job of raising our children. We need to be talking about personal safety and self-esteem. We need to be optimistic and positive people who truly believe that we can make a difference, even if everything we hear and read tells us that our nation is adrift, leaderless, and beholden to China. We need to be aware of our children’s emotional health. Children who are depressed, insecure, and angry are much more likely to abuse drugs than their happy, self-confident, and positive peers. It is our job to help young people find ways to be productive and caring citizens and to find things to be happy about every day. Finally, it is our responsibility to get to know our children’s friends and their friends’ parents, and to be sure our children are where they say they are supposed to be. In the immortal words of a recent past president, “trust but verify”.

Nic is one of the lucky ones. Despite burning bridges and hurting those who love him best, and whom he loves best, he is still welcome home – as long as he is sober. He is also lucky to have parents with deep pockets. But what about the countless others we see loitering near convenience stores, turning tricks, going without food, and begging change on street corners? These people, who were once beautiful boys and girls, are at the bottom of the pyramid that supports the illegal drug industry. Eventually their bodies will die as a result of their addiction, then perhaps their souls will be set free.

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